‘Half-Hanged Mary’ is a poem detailing the unsuccessful hanging of Mary Webster, a woman accused of being a witch due to her “cure for warts” and her gender. The poem’s main focus is witchcraft and the persecution of women. It is a ballad with irregular stanza lengths, showing that we don’t know whether she will live. It is a first person narrative, from the thoughts of Webster herself. The poem is separated into hours, showing that the thoughts are over a long period of time, and also showing the fact that Mary is ‘half-hanged’ – she hasn’t died.
This set of stanzas details the rumours leading up to Webster’s accusation. The idea that “Rumour was loose in the air” gives the image and impression of a gas, yet the word “hunting” gives it a purpose, a malevolent nature, as if this gas is poisonous and isn’t hovering harmlessly, but sweeping over a village. The use of the words “neck” and “loose” already conjure up images associated with hanging. It is ironic that Webster is participating in a pastoral act of nurture at this time, “milking the cow”, showing that she is responsible and not evil.
The use of imagery in stanza 2 shows that words can be used as weapons :”the aimed word”, “soft bullet”, almost alluding to the idiom ‘The pen is mightier than the sword” – that words can be more of a weapon than any physical weapon. Atwood also subtly mentions two other methods of death in this stanza, “like water” – the idea of witches being drowned, and “thrown stone” – the idea of witched being stoned to death.
Stanzas 3 and 4 detail why she was sentenced to hang. “A surefire cure for warts” shows that she was lucky in helping someone get rid of warts and was thus thought of as a witch. This is ironic as if she were a doctor or a priest it would be considered medical, or miraculous – yet because she is a woman who lives “alone” she is persecuted. She then highlights the fact that she is accused of being a witch because she is a woman, “and breasts”. The imagery of a “sweet per hidden in my body” representing the womb also highlights her feminine nature, but also conjures up images of the Biblical idea of forbidden fruit.
These stanzas detail the actual act of hanging her. Atwood starts by saying that the “rope” was an “improvisation” – suggesting that they’d use a more brutal act of “axes” if they had thought about it. The use of the word “improvisation” and later on “show of hate” makes the whole thing sound like a piece of drama, a piece of theatre, highlighting the fact that in those days hangings were public entertainment.
Atwood uses several images to describe her ascent, “a windfall in reverse”. The phrase “a flag raised to salute the moon” references the common belief at the time of Mary Webster that witch’s powers came from the moon. The image “a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree” has several connotations. The idea of a “blackened apple” gives ideas of black magic and the idea that magic can make you rotten. The “tree” also gives Biblical ideas of the Tree of Life, the birthplace of sin. Atwood also raises the idea of original sin by using the phrase “old original”.
“Their own evil turned inside out like a glove
and me wearing it.”
This image shows that it’s the executors who are evil, not Webster’s – yet she is the one that the public believe is evil. This is very powerful and conveys the message perfectly.
This selection of stanzas shows the reaction of the people and Webster’s reaction to them. She describes the puritans (“the bonnets”) and the nuns/priests (“the dark skirts”) as “lipless” – showing that they’re too scared to speak in case they associate themselves with the witch as they think “Birds of a feather burn together”. Atwood has deliberately twisted an idiom into this for effect.
Atwood shows that Webster was a helpful woman, curing babies and helping those with unwanted ones, the “non-wife” who needed an abortion to “save” her life. And yet these people do not help her, not even offering a “hand, “bread” or a “shawl”. These three items conjure up Christian ideas, especially of the parable of the goats and the sheep. Atwood almost mocks the religious by saying “Lord knows” – these people are religious to the bone, and yet they’re selfish, they “need it all” and do not help Webster.
Thanks for reading,